Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A woman divided

Author Lori Lansens embodies an obese woman in The Wife's Tale

Art And Entertainment Network News,Author Lori Lansens embodies an obese woman in The Wifes Tale,lori lansens, the girls, wifes tale, obese

Leaford, Ont., is not visible on any map, a fact that must come as a shock to international fans of Lori Lansens's fiction. The best-selling author has written a trilogy of novels set in the tiny town of Leaford: Rush Home Road (2003), The Girls (2005) and her latest, The Wife's Tale. A close-knit fictional farming community not too far from Windsor and London, Leaford is a quaint, quirky place that could be a kissing cousin of Alice Munro's Huron County. Lansens describes the hamlet and its idiosyncratic denizens so vividly, it's hard to believe the place is only a figment of her imagination.

Born and raised in Leaford, the protagonist of The Wife's Tale is content to be complacent. Mary Gooch is comfortable in her stalled marriage with a silent, sensitive trucker and happy to trudge to and from her dull job in the local drugstore. Mary is also settled in her unconventional body — at 302 pounds, she's a woman whose size literally keeps her stuck in one place. Though she'd be happy to live out the rest of her days in Leaford, Mary's world is thrown into chaos when her husband disappears on the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, leaving behind a large sum of money and not much in the way of explanation. Mary embarks on a voyage of discovery that wrenches her out of her hometown and her psychological paralysis and leads her all the way to Los Angeles and a newfound sense of herself. It's equal parts Shirley Valentine, Fried Green Tomatoes and Dr. Phil.

Now based in Los Angeles herself, Lansens is an old hand at telling tales of square pegs in small towns — The Girls, for one, focused on a pair of conjoined twins. But with The Wife's Tale, she says she wanted to introduce readers to the inner world of a character who was "impossible to ignore" in their everyday lives. In a recent phone interview, Lansens spoke to about obesity, observing outsiders and why she considers herself a "method writer."

Q: You have a background in screenwriting. Did writing dialogue help you learn how take on the voices of different characters in your fiction?

A: No. I actually think my approach to character is not something I was taught. It's intuitive. That's probably why I was drawn to acting. I joke that I'm a method writer, because I feel like writing is an active inhabitation. I'm not sure if I'm inhabiting the characters or they're inhabiting me, but if I'm writing Mary Gooch or [the characters] in The Girls, then I am them. If I can get out of my own way, they'll find their way to the page, by way of truth. Mary Gooch affected my whole life: I suffered her loss of appetite, her palpitations… I'm not sure if her anxieties were mine or mine were hers! And while my particular search wasn't for my husband or anything that concrete, I certainly felt like I was in searching mode throughout writing the book.

Q: You live in a very different world and body from that of Mary Gooch. You did extensive research on conjoined twins while writing The Girls —did you have a similarly comprehensive research process for this book?

A: The research for this book was lifelong and anecdotal. At a certain time in one's life — I say middle age, but for some, it's later, and for some, it's earlier – if you talk to your peers, male and female, about what's going on with them, they're frequently trying to reinvent themselves. It's about really examining with scrutiny and honesty mistakes you've made or what has brought you here and how you want this act to play out. What can you change? You can change almost anything, even if it's just your perception [of a situation]. We all struggle with identity in some way, in terms of what and who we are. [For myself], I am mother and I am wife and I am daughter and I am writer.

Q: Mary's relationship with motherhood in The Wife's Tale is quite fraught. Does that come from your own shifting relationship with your kids as they've grown out of infancy?

A: My children are still very young — they're seven and nine — and any moment that I am not with my computer and my fictional characters, I am with my children. My husband, as you might know, is in the film business. He's a director and producer on 24 and works very long hours. We live here [in Southern California] with no family, in a rural canyon, and [me and my children] are very much alone, the three of us, quite often. I squire my children to sport games four nights a week; I spend time reading them stories. There are lots of parts of me jostling for identity – the friend I want to be but can't, the daughter I strive to be for my parents but don't have the time for… I'm engaged in a continued search to define my identity. I know I'm not alone in that position in life.

Q: In one scene in The Wife's Tale, Mary is compelled to shout, "Fat girl revolution!" It's a rare moment of self-acceptance from a character who consistently views her size as a detrimental quality. Were you concerned about playing into negative stereotypes around fatness?

A: At some point, after she's made the decision to be active, to go in search of the husband she's lost, Mary is on the plane to California. She talks about this anorexic girl in this seat beside her, and there's a section where she questions the idea of what is self-acceptance. Something we see in our culture — and something I did struggle with — is this notion that one should accept one's body, whatever size or type it is. This goes against the real truth, which is that overwhelmingly, overweight people seem to be unhappy being overweight.

[In another section of the book,] Mary has a conversation with her mother about her high school teacher, Ms. Bolt, who is overweight — morbidly obese, really — but promotes self-acceptance. Her mother responds by saying that if doctors all over the world call a condition morbid, is that really something to accept? When Mary's husband, Gooch, talks to her about food, he claims she hates it — which, in fact, might be true. She understands that Gooch is not looking for the skinny ideal, and that's what's behind the story. It's not the skinny ideal that drives her; it's the idea that this morbid obesity, which is extreme and excessive, has taken over her life. She has to wrest power away from and take control back from the "obeast."

Q: Do you think Mary uses her size as a sort of security blanket? Does she hold on to the "obeast," as you call it, because she can only think of herself as grotesque and doesn't know what her identity would be beyond that?

A: Pop culture may suggest that there's a traumatic event in childhood that leads to obesity, but sometimes, people just like food. It is a question of directing and restraining [impulses] that is not necessarily being met. We're looking at frightening childhood obesity statistics, off-the-charts statistics, and not all of these children are obese because of trauma.

In Mary's case, it's not trauma. Certainly, she always felt like an outsider and didn't have a great deal of social skills. She stood on the outside, and food became her friend. And at a certain point, she surrendered to the obeast. As she becomes cloaked in this "subcutaneous duvet" — she feels comfort and warmth and security within. She also feels anger and resentment and malaise and dissatisfaction there. Eventually, it becomes something she has no power over.

Q: You started writing The Wife's Tale shortly after you moved from Toronto to the Los Angeles area. The idea of a woman struggling with her body must feel especially poignant for someone living in a region where cosmetic surgery is so rampant.

A: One would think that because of where I live, that's true, but my life isn't really like that. I live in a rural canyon in the Santa Monica mountains, near a town that is smaller than [the fictional] Leaford. You don't see the obesity epidemic here the way you do in other places, other states and provinces and perhaps some small towns. But I'm not really bombarded with images of reconfigured bodies any more here than I was in Toronto. [The character of Mary Gooch] came to me here because this is where I sought her and found her. She was traveling a journey that was similar to my own. Everything shifts into sharp focus when you leave the familiar behind — it's like when you're struck by new realizations while on holiday.

Q: Do you think this character appeared to you now because you're a stranger in a strange land?

A: No. This character has been with me since I started writing — in fact, long before that. I don't think I'm alone as a woman in — I won't call it an obsession, but a preoccupation or an interest in weight and body image. I think that's natural, for all women. I started writing about this character in my first published short story that I wrote 25 years ago — it was a love story between an obese woman and an elderly man — and she continued to appear in one guise or another throughout my career. It's [a] timely [subject], and it was time. But from the first short story on, my affinity [has been] for the outsider. Sometimes, the outsider is more obviously an outsider because of [his or her] physical form.

Q: Do you consider yourself an outsider?

A: Partially. I knew I wanted to be a writer, an author, from a very young age. So I was in an observational state early in life, and I think that causes you to gravitate to the fringes.

Q: But when you tell these stories about folks on the fringes, you're taking on perspectives that are quite removed from your experience. Do you ever worry about misappropriating these voices?

A: In all of my novels, I've written characters completely outside myself. In The Girls, it was conjoined twins; in Rush Home Road, I became an elderly black woman and a mixed-race five-year-old girl. Now, it's a morbidly obese woman. When one approaches a work with empathy and honesty — as I hoped I did or felt I did in writing Mary Gooch — I think you can sail forth with confidence if you know you're telling the truth.

by Sarah Liss